It’s leg day, and you’ve decided to work your quadriceps, those large muscles on the front of your thighs. So you’re stuck with the leg press vs. squats dilemma. This article will explore whether a leg press can replace a squat and the pros and cons of both exercise movements. We’ll also look at which exercise fits your gym goals better!
A leg press cannot replace the squat. The leg press and squats target the quadriceps (the muscles on the front of the legs), hamstrings (muscles opposite the quads and at the back of the thigh), and glutes (the muscles in the buttocks). The squat involves more body parts like the hips and the abs, whereas the leg press only targets the legs.
Both the leg press and the squats target your leg muscles and strengthen them. Both have their advantages for anyone who wants to strength train and build muscle mass, and both can be used effectively to reach your muscle goals. The significant difference is that the squat is a more compound movement that targets other sections of your body. It may be tempting to choose one and ignore the other, but that might be the wrong move.
How Does a Leg Press Differ From a Squat?
Leg presses target only the leg muscles. Whereas the biochemical movements of the squat target your abs and hip area as well. Both are an integral part of strength training and can be used in combination to build muscle mass. Let’s look at each in a little more detail:
A comparison table showing the squat vs leg press
|Movement Pattern||-Machine based
-Fixed movement pattern
|-Free weight exercise (not Smith squat machine)
-Free movement pattern that depends on your body position
|Muscles Worked||-Quads and Glutes (Narrow stance)
-Hamstrings and Glutes
-Some Core Activation
|-Full body movement
-Primary movers include your glutes, quadriceps, core muscles, and hamstrings at certain points
|Learning Curve||-Easy to learn
-Some coaching points to remember
|-Hard to learn as a beginner
-Mobility issues may be a problem to start off with
|Safety||-Some safety points to bare in mind
-Reduced spinal load due to padded back and head rests
|-Safe to perform with the correct technique
-Can be dangerous if you move out of position or fail to brace correctly
|Functional Applications||-Increased leg strength has some functional applications to everyday movements||-Mimics multiple everyday movements and should translate into much better mobility and quality of life with repeated practice|
|Joint Movements||-Eccentric phase involves knee and hip flexion
-Concentric phase involves glute and quad activation
|-Eccentric phase involves knee and hip flexion
-Concentric phase involves glute and quad activation
Due to the fixed movement pattern, the leg press is more of a bigger isolation-type exercise that works your quads or hamstrings depending on the placement of your feet. If you assume a narrow stance, your quads will be activated more with less emphasis on your hamstrings and glues. The wider your foot placement, the more you activate your hamstrings and glutes. Your core musculature is activated during a leg press but not as much as during a squat.
The squat is more of an entire body compound-type movement that involves your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core muscles to perform the movement correctly. As you squat down, your glutes contract as you perform a hip hinge while flexing at the knee joints. Your core muscles function to keep a neutral spine and your chest upright with your head facing forward. As you push out of the bottom position, your quadriceps contract to bring your body upwards.
Both movements heavily involve your quads and glutes as the primary muscles but the hamstrings are seen as secondary movers (unless using a very wide foot position on the leg press). Your hamstring’s main role is to stabilize your knees throughout the movements.
Whilst this may be obvious it’s still worth explaining the difference. The leg press is a machine-based exercise that uses a fixed movement pattern, with the foot plate sliding up and down the rails. Throughout the movement, your feet stay in the same position with your back and head supported against the pads.
Due to this, you don’t use as much motor control, with the machine taking most of the hard work out. Less emphasis is placed on your core and stabilizer muscles. It’s still a hard compound exercise but you get some help.
The squat is a free-weight exercise that requires your lower and upper body muscles to work together to maintain the correct movement pattern (With the exception of the hack squat and Smith machine squat). Alongside your primary and secondary muscles that I’ve mentioned above, smaller stabilizer muscles work to maintain and optimal lifting position.
Compared to the leg press, barbell squats require much more coordination and stability, with lifters spending years trying to get an extra percent through slight technique changes.
This is perhaps the main difference between the two movements. As a machine-based exercise that uses a fixed resistance path, the leg press is less technical to learn and therefore easier to perform. To perform a leg press you need to keep your back and head against the pad and perform the press whilst keeping your feet in the same position. There isn’t really much technical knowledge or learning needed outside of that.
The squat is much more technical, requiring multiple muscle groups to work together in order to perform the movement correctly and safely. Learning the proper form as a beginner can be tough and can often take weeks of technical practice before you’re able to progress, even with just your body weight.
Whilst both movements have risks involved, the leg press is much safer to perform due to the fixed movement pattern and back support given. If you move out of position slightly on the leg press, the fixed rail pattern will keep the sled in the right position. This forces you to quickly correct your body position, reducing the chances of injury.
When performing a free-weight exercise such as the squat using heavy weight, there will always be a risk of deviating from the correct lifting position and placing more stress on your joints or lumbar spine area. Care needs to be taken to make sure you keep your core braced with a neutral back at all times. This makes the leg press relatively safer to perform compared to the squat.
To clarify, the leg press is dangerous when not used properly but doesnt have as many risks as the squat.
In terms of functionality, the squat is one of the best exercises to perform. Whilst the leg press will help to develop leg strength and therefore help with general mobility and movement, the squat seated position mimics multiple everyday movements. Activities such as playing with the children, putting shopping away in the kitchen, and cleaning the house should all become easier to perform with repeated squat practice.
The primary movers and degree of muscle activation between both movements are different as I’ve discussed above, but the actual joint movements are fairly similar. The eccentric phase of the leg press and squat both involve a degree of knee and hip flexion as you lower the weight down. The concentric phase where your muscle contract involves your glutes and quads as they extend to push the weight upwards to the starting position.
Pros and Cons of the Leg Press
If the goal is to work your legs and build muscle mass, leg presses can help you do that. However, they can be risky if you try to move too much weight or lock your knees.
- Your back is supported, and you have hand rests. This allows you to focus all your energy on your leg muscles.
- You can target specific leg muscles by adjusting your foot position on the footpads.
- Your quads get a more rigorous workout because there is less focus on the hamstrings and glutes as compared to the squat.
- There is no need for a spotter
- You cannot do the exercise without a leg press machine.
- You can end up working one leg more than the other. The machine moves the same way regardless of the effort being put by each leg.
- You run the risk of rounding your back if you try to press too much weight.
- You can injure your knees if you press too much weight, or you can lock your knees when extending your legs.
- You can end up piling on more weight than you can handle
You may also want to read 5 Leg Press Variations for Lower Body Strength.
The Pros and Cons of Squats
Squat exercises are great for targeting your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. However, if you do them with free weights, you can injure yourself by trying to squat too much or losing control of the barbell.
- Squats allow you to bring variation in your exercises. There are different varieties of squats that you can use to target other areas of the body
- Squats can help in strengthening your back and core muscles
- Squats are great way to improve knee flexibility
- Squats can help to maintain good posture by encouraging you to keep your back straight.
- Squats can cause back injuries if you lean too far back or round it too much
- Your shoulders may get strained due to lifting a heavy barbell
- You can get stuck in the middle of a squat and not be able to get back up
- Your knees can get injured if you move them too far in or out during squatting
- You may need the help of a spotter
A related article of interest is barbell front squat vs back squat.
Leg Press Variations You Can Try
There isn’t much room for variations when it comes to leg presses, but there are a few ways you can mix things up:
Higher foot placement
You can place your feet higher on the footpads for increased extension and contraction of your glutes and hamstrings. This will also reduce your knees’ range of motion during the exercise.
Lower foot placement
Lowering your feet on the footpad will increase your knees’ range of motion. This variation will work your quads more than your glutes and hamstrings.
One-leg leg press
You can use one leg at a time to ensure both legs are being worked properly. You have to make sure that the weight isn’t too much for one leg.
Read our article leg press variations for for more information on how you foot placement impacts your leg press workout.
Squat Variations You Can Try
Squats can be done without weights, and they offer more variation than a leg press. Each variation can target a different region of your muscles.
Hack squats can be done with machines or barbells. This variation puts less strain on your back because the weight is under your center of mass, not in front of or above it. You need to bend your knees to reach the barbell behind you, then stand up with the barbell across your buttocks or upper hamstrings.
This is the most commonly known squat variation among weightlifters. The weight is placed behind your neck, and you bend down and straighten up to complete one repetition.
Remember, you may want to lean a little forward to help with weight management on your back. Avoid doing this because it can strain your back.
Front squats are performed with weights or a barbell at shoulder length as you perform a regular squat. This variation is easier on the knees and back than back and hack squats.
Leg Press Vs Squats – Which is Better Choice ?
The answer will depend on your exercise needs. Squats are definitely an excellent choice if you are looking for an exercise move that works your overall body together. However, if your focus is your leg muscles, you have back or leg pain, and balancing issues, leg presses are a better option for you.
Both exercises are great for working on your lower body. The best way is to use a mix of both for building muscle and strength.
Research conducted in 2018 suggests that both exercises can be used in a balanced combination to work the lower body properly.
Safety Tips for Lower Body Leg Workouts
body workouts can be tricky and involve back and knee injury risks. Here are some essential tips for working your lower body safely:
- Be careful with weights. Do not overload on weights.
- Take help from a spotter when doing squats
- Don’t lock your knees when extending them while doing leg presses
- Start with lighter weights and slowly increase them over time
You may also want to read 5 Leg Press Form Tips.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Are leg presses easier than squats?
Leg presses seem easier than squats because your spine isn’t actively engaged in a leg press. A leg press is done on a leg press machine, and your back is placed against a backrest. Your body is stabilized due to the machine.
2. Should I do leg presses or squats on the same day?
Leg presses and squats work the same muscles and are complementary exercises. If you plan on doing both on the same day, it is best to manage weights so that you don’t overtrain your body. On the other hand, you can do either on alternative days.
3. Should I start my leg day with squats?
It’s not necessary to start your leg day with squats. However, it is recommended that you do them early because they require a lot of energy and focus. This is especially true if you plan on incorporating deadlifts in your leg training program while doing squats.
Leg presses and squats are great exercise moves if you want to focus on your lower body muscles. Both can be programmed successfully according to your personal preference to accomplish a range of health and fitness goals.
They are both essential when it comes to strength training and building muscle. Both exercises work different muscle groups in your legs. It is best to use a combination of both for your leg day.
To learn how to build strong quads read our article the best quad exercises.